When Madame Élisabeth was six years old, an event happened that was to have a profound influence on the rest of her childhood and indeed the rest of her life.
The betrothal of her eldest brother, the Dauphin Louis had been a source of intense interest at court for quite some time as preparations went on for what was to be one of the most magnificent wedding spectacles ever held at Versailles. Excitement had reached fever pitch by the time his bride, the fifteen year old Archduchess Marie Antoinette arrived at the palace at 10am on the 16th May 1770 and Madame Élisabeth, as the youngest member of the royal family must have been quite beside herself by the time the beautiful new princess, dressed in her splendid travelling costume of blue and white silk arrived in the royal apartments.
Madame de Marsan, who Marie Antoinette had been warned against and who she was to take one of her quick and unyielding dislikes to, was quick to push her favourite pupil, Madame Clotilde forward but the young Archduchess immediately knelt in front of the smallest princess, Élisabeth and gave her a quick hug.
The little princess was too young to take part in the splendid ceremonies and balls arranged for the wedding but was allowed to stay up late to watch the massive firework display that had been planned for the evening. Unfortunately they were ruined by a terrible thunderstorm, which must have been an enormous disappointment.
Marie Antoinette and her youngest sister in law become good friends, despite a large age difference. They were clearly drawn to each other by having the same fun loving, tomboyish natures as well as a mutual feeling that they were somewhat out of place in the huge sprawling palace, where neither was loved as much as they wished to be.
Rouget de l’Isle, later to be writer of the Marseillaise encountered the two princesses at this time: ‘I was fifteen years of age and was on holiday with a lady who was a relation of mine, who had her lodgings at Versailles. All of a sudden, I heard the door of her apartment in which I was, being struck in a certain manner, and my relation, very much upset, said to me: ‘Ah, Dieu, my child, hide quickly, here’s the Queen!’ And at the same time she pushed me into the next room, quickly pulling the curtains over me. An indeed, Marie Antoinette and Madame Élisabeth came in, and soon, freed from the yoke of etiquette, they began to jump, to run and to chase one another.’
Now that Marie Antoinette was at court, life became much more fun for Élisabeth with concerts, parties, picnics and visits to the neighbouring estates of favoured aristocrats. Both girls adored gardening and would spend hours in the grounds of Versailles watching the gardeners at work and planning their own future gardens.
It was at this time that Élisabeth came to know Montreuil, where she would later have her own country estate. Her governess Madame de Marsan owned a charming little house there next door to the estate of her niece, the Princesse de Guémenée. For reasons that aren’t clear, she gave it to the Baronne de Mackau as a residence for herself and her daughter, Angélique who was soon to marry the Marquis de Bombelles. Élisabeth was to spend many happy hours at Montreuil as a child, freed from the constraints of Versailles and enjoying the simple country life that it afforded.
Madame Élisabeth’s early loathing of her lessons had vanished and Madame de Marsan felt confident enough in her charge’s abilities to ask the extremely intelligent and witty Marquise de la Ferté-Imbault, daughter of the famous saloniste Madame Geoffrin to come to Versailles and give lessons in philosophy to the young princesses. Only at Versailles…
She was also taught Italian and Latin, with her teacher, Signor Goldini writing about her: ‘This young princess, lively, gay and amiable, was more of an age to amuse herself than to apply herself. I have assisted at some Latin lessons which they were giving her, and I have noticed that she had good dispositions to learn, but she did not like to linger on small difficulties. She wanted to turn her occupation into an amusement and I tried to give my lessons in the form of agreeable conversation.’
As Élisabeth grew older, she also grew closer to her brothers who were so much older than herself and must have seemed like such glamorous, dashing creatures in their splendid velvet and silk suits. She would always love her eldest brother, the Dauphin most sincerely, appreciating his quiet ways and honest devotion to his family but she had a definite soft spot also for her youngest brother, Charles, the handsome Comte d’Artois who was a delightful young man with charming manners.
Charles was about to be married to one of the Princesses de Savoie, but was madly in love with the exquisite Princesse Louise-Adélaïde de Condé, daughter of the Prince de Condé and who had recently come to court from her convent school. It had once been the intention of their families that Charles and Louise be married but for some reason the match had not come about, leaving both of the young people feeling decidedly melancholy and wistful about each other. The lovely Louise was nicknamed ‘Hebé-Bourbon’ in tribute to her extreme beauty and she was to become very close friends with Marie Antoinette and her favourite sister in law, Madame Élisabeth.
The grandchildren of the King and their friends formed their own cotérie at Versailles and were often to be seen together enjoying picnics in the park, playing cards or simply enjoying each other’s company in their enormous apartments in the palace. The Comte de Provence and the two Savoie Princesses may have had malicious tongues and a sly eyed tendency to look askance at the fun of the others but the rest of the group wanted nothing more than to enjoy life to the full.
This idyllic life, enjoyed by the young people of the court was soon to come to an abrupt end when shortly after Élisabeth’s tenth birthday, her grandfather Louis XV was taken ill at the Petit Trianon and died days later from the dreaded smallpox, leaving the young and decidedly inexperienced Louis and Marie Antoinette as King and Queen of France. The old King had seemed to be in his prime and neither had expected to inherit the throne for quite some time so it must have been a terrible shock to both of them.